Music Interview: “Going to the Place That’s the Best” — Norman Greenbaum Returns Home to Malden
By Jason M. Rubin
The hit 1969 song “Spirit in the Sky” by Malden’s own Norman Greenbaum is the inspiration for one of several new works of public art.
“Spirit in the Sky” is now a mural on a wall in Malden, Massachusetts. The hit 1969 song by Malden’s own Norman Greenbaum is the inspiration for one of several new works of public art that are popping up around the city, thanks to the ARTLine initiative led by Malden Arts, a nonprofit organization of artists and arts activists dedicated to making creative expression more publicly visible. Austin, Texas–based artist Jesse Melanson was commissioned to create the mural, which will be unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 16 at 5:30 p.m., at the corner of Exchange Street and Washington Street in Malden. Special guest at the ribbon-cutting will be the man himself, Malden High School Class of 1960 graduate Norman Greenbaum.
The long, strange trip from Malden to California (where he began his recording career in 1966 and still lives) and back to Malden was the focus of a conversation I had with Greenbaum recently. But first, some facts on the song:
- It was inspired by seeing Porter Waggoner sing a gospel song on TV (why else would a Jewish kid sing about having “a friend in Jesus”?)
- It has sold more than two million copies
- It reached number three on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart in April 1970, and spent 15 weeks in the Top 100
- It has been used in 60 movies (including Apollo 13), two dozen commercials, and numerous TV shows
- Rolling Stone ranked it number 333 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
Arts Fuse: After two years at Boston University, you went to California. What inspired you to head west?
Norman Greenbaum: I was studying liberal arts, trying to figure out if it was for me. But I was also starting to play and write folky kind of music. I was living near Kenmore Square and Fenway Park, and I used to hang out with DJ Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg. I got a few gigs around town and I liked it better than studying. Back then we didn’t go to concerts, we went to coffeehouses and saw people like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan; a combination of folkies from Greenwich Village and local Boston people. So I was into that.
AF: You went to L.A. just as that music scene was exploding. How did you get yourself established out there?
Greenbaum: I had friends who went to Hollywood, and they said I should come out. I wasn’t a fan of winter anyway, so I went out there, got an apartment with a roommate, learned where to hang out, met people who knew people. I was a fan of jug bands and would buy records and learn those songs. I thought a jug band would fit my voice well, so I formed a group called Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band. I was Dr. West and I wanted it to be something more than just a band, I wanted to do a show with jokes and stories. I wrote most of the material. We painted our faces and had light shows. We got signed after one audition. You know, it was the start of the flower power generation. Everything was psychedelic. Jerry Garcia started out in a jug band, too.
AF: Dr. West had a minor hit with “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago”; why did the band break up?
Greenbaum: That song went to number 50 on the charts, an amazing accomplishment back then. We did a tour, had some opportunities, but I found it hard dealing with the suits and I started looking for a chance to do something else. I thought my creativity was being limited. So I went electric, put some bands together, then Erik Jacobsen, who produced the Lovin’ Spoonful, came up to me. He liked my songs and got me a deal with Warner Brothers. I moved to northern California and did the Spirit in the Sky album.
AF: “Spirit in the Sky” was not the record company’s first choice of single from that album. It took a few misses before that became a hit. Did you think it had the potential to be successful?
Greenbaum: Absolutely. That’s why we named the album after it. The thing was, AM radio wanted songs that were 2:20, and FM radio was not well-established yet. The song was thought to be too long, too weird. It’s religious yet it has this crazy guitar sound. We finally talked them into putting it out.
AF: There must have been pressure to repeat the sound and success of “Spirit in the Sky,” but your music was so varied. Was it hard to meet people’s expectations of who you were as an artist?
Greenbaum:: The pressure was there, they would have liked something similar but I never really tried to meet expectations. That song had established me as somebody I really wasn’t. I was a fan of all different kinds of music, and that’s what I played on stage. It was a detriment to the future but whatever they wanted, I would do the opposite. My next single, “Canned Ham,” reached number 46 but they didn’t get me. I was battling expectations from fans, the record company, radio stations. For my next song, “California Earthquake,” I used the same fuzz box guitar in the intro that I did in “Spirit in the Sky.” But then the suits said you can’t put out a song about an earthquake because it scares people. It made the charts but didn’t do as well. In 1973, I made my final album, Petaluma, which was the place in northern California I had moved to. It was all acoustic, no drums, but Ry Cooder played guitar on it. It was the best-produced record I ever made but it went nowhere. It didn’t fit into what was happening. I didn’t fit in. So I left the music business.
AF: Forty-odd years later, you’re playing and singing again. What brought you back?
Greenbaum: When I moved to Petaluma, my wife at the time wanted a farm and she liked goats so we got into the goat farm business. And that was great. But over the years, “Spirit in the Sky” began to be used in movies and commercials and it started a new wave of interest in the song. Oldies stations picked it up and started playing it again. And each time it appears somewhere it gets rediscovered by a new generation. It’s held up unbelievably well. I don’t record anymore, but I play gigs, make appearances, support charities.
AF: You were seriously injured in a car accident in 2015. Not to be flippant, but did the lyrics to “Spirit in the Sky” flash through your mind at any point?
Greenbaum: I went into an immediate coma for three-and-a-half weeks, so I never had the chance. I was supposed to die, but I made it. I do recall having a dream where people were waving me back, saying, “Come here, come here.” I believe that was my fans praying for me. I’ve also survived prostate cancer and a heart attack.
AF: When was the last time you were in Malden? Do you have any family here still?
Greenbaum: My family has moved but I do have a cousin in Medford and one in Billerica. The last time I was there was five years ago. My old neighborhood is gone. I went looking for my house; it’s a strip mall now. It’s all different. This whole mural thing came out of the blue. It’s an honor for sure. I’m looking forward to meeting up with some of my classmates. We’ll see how those conversations go.
The October 16 ribbon-cutting schedule is as follows:
- 5:30-6:00 p.m. – Ribbon-cutting at the corner of Washington and Exchange Streets
- 6:00-7:00 p.m. – The celebration will move to the Markey Community Center at 7 Washington Street for speeches by Malden Mayor Gary Christenson and dignitaries, including citations for Greenbaum and mural artist Jesse Melanson
- Refreshments will be provided and CDs and memorabilia will be for sale
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 33 years, the last 18 of which as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for The Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, combines in a single volume an updated version of his first novel with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, depicting the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.